His First and Greatest Novel
Published in 1954, Lord of the Flies was William Golding’s first novel, and it remains his greatest to date. Nor is it likely that Golding would, in the remaining years of his life, write anything to surpass his first fictional work. Lord of the Flies must have weighed heavily in the assessment by the judges of Golding’s literary output when they decided to award the Nobel Prize for literature for the year 1983 to Golding.
A Convincing Picture of Juvenile Behaviour
Two existing novels, both of which find a mention in Lord of the Flies, seem to have been in Golding’s mind when he wrote this story. Those two novels are Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson, and Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne. Although the starting-point of Golding’s novel is somewhat similar to that of those two novels, Golding’s approach to the human situation is entirely different from that of Stevenson and Ballantyne. While the first two authors depict juvenile behaviour in almost idealistic terms which excite our admiration for the boys, Golding seeks through his story to reveal the evil which lies latent or dormant in the minds of most of the boys and which only needs a favourable environment to manifest itself and then to go on growing till it becomes so formidable as to overwhelm and engulf whatever of good there may be in a small minority of the lads. Thus, in a sense, Golding’s story is more realistic and convincing while the other two stories are highly fanciful and divorced from reality.
Golding’s Greatest Commercial Success
Lord of the Flies has proved to be Golding’s greatest commercial success also. The book was made into a cinema film which proved to be an outstanding box-office hit. Then this book was prescribed, and continues to be prescribed, as a text-book for exhaustive study in countless schools. In India it is prescribed as a text-book for exhaustive study at a number of universities. Lord of the Flies is not just an adventure story. Golding has invested the story with a profound significance. And the story is a gripping one. We read it almost breathlessly even though brief but vivid descriptions of natural scenery impede the march of the plot. These descriptions have their own appeal and add to the merit of the book rather than detract from it.
A Feeling of Grief Behind the Writing of This Novel
More than five million copies of Lord of the Flies have been sold since it was first published. Golding’s own favourite, however, is his second novel, The Inheritors, which was published in 1955. “It is the book that I am most satisfied about,” Golding has said with reference to The Inheritors. With reference to Lord of the Flies, Golding is reported to have made the following observations:
Lord of the Flies is not a satire on human society. It’s only too sad, a picture of what human society is like. I remember having tried to find the reasons why I wrote this book and I came up with all sorts of elaborate explanations till suddenly it dawned on me while somebody was interviewing me that the book had come out of my own reaction to the Second World War which I fought in when I was a relatively young man. It was not fighting in the war that made me write it, but finding out what people had done to each other after the war. I realized that my original idealist view of what people were like had now come down to a desperate reading of what they could actually be like. So I would say that the real force behind Lord of the Flies is grief. Just that.
Realism, Golding’s Aim
Golding has also said that Lord of the Flies did not come out of other adventure stories such as Treasure Island and Coral Island. In Golding’s opinion, it is a mistake to suppose that one book comes out of another. According to him, a book comes out of life. Golding had known about the sea and he bad known about sailors. He did not need to read the stories written by Joseph Conrad in order to write Lord of the Flies. Having gone through some stories in which little boys always behave like perfect little angels, never like normal children, Golding told his wife that he would like to write a story about boys on an island who behave in the way boys would really behave. She agreed and said that it was a brilliant idea, whereupon Golding, the schoolmaster, sat down to set out his perception of how those boys might have really behaved, thus writing one of the most successful stories of his time.
The Evil Lurking Below the Surface of Civilization
Lord of the Flies is a fictional description of the anarchic behaviour of a group of school-boys cast away on an island. The story brings out the evil, the savagery, and the bestiality of man lurking below the surface of civilization. When Golding visited India in February 1987, he stated that the theme of Lord of the Flies was “grief, grief, grief, at the fallen nature of man.” Yet at the same time he asserted his faith and belief in the grace of God. He said that salvation is universal and that he was committed in a world, which had become increasingly materialistic, to the view that God is within us.
Publication of the Novel, Not an Easy Affair
Golding did not find it easy to have Lord of the Flies published. The original title which he had given to this novel was “Strangers from Within.” He sent the typescript of the novel to the well-known publishing firm “Faber and Faber” with the following note :
“I send you the typescript of my novel “Strangers from Within” which might be defined as an allegorical inter pretation of a stock situation. I hope you will feel able to publish it.” (William Golding)
The novel was handed over to the official reviewer of the firm. The reviewer was a lady whose verdict went against the novel. She thus commented on the book :
Time: the future. Absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atomic bomb and a group of children who laid in jungle country near New Guinea. Rubbish and dull. Pointless.
Golding’s novel had thus been rejected. However, the novel was then referred to Charles Monteith who was the boss. Monteith reacted differently. He felt not only interested by the book but totally gripped by it. When he finished reading it, he found it unforgettable. However, the Book Committee found the novel to be “odd” and “imperfect”, though potentially very powerful. Thereupon Monteith prevailed upon the Book Committee to interview the author and to propose certain changes to be made in the book, without any commitment to publishing it. Accordingly, a meeting between the Book Commitee and Golding was held, and certain changes were decided upon, including a change in the title. The Book Committee then decided to publish the novel under the changed title, Lord of the Flies. The book saw the light of the day in September, 1954. E.M. Forster and C.S. Lewis praised it, T.S. Eliot found it not only “a splendid novel” but “morally and theologically impeccable.”
A conch-shell discovered by one of the boys figures prominently in the novel. A conch is the shell or outer covering of the body of a kind of sea-fish. It is partly oblong and partly round in shape. In colour it is white. By blowing into it one can produce a loud sound which is not sweet but which is not jarring either. The conch is commonly used in Hindu temples where the priest blows it as part of the ceremony of worship.
The Time of the Story ; and the Number of Boys
The time of the story is a future date when a nuclear war has broken out in Europe. In other words, the time is that of World War III, in the course of which children are being evacuated from England to safer countries. A large group of boys being thus evacuated crash-land on an uninhabited island where the action of the story takes place. The number of the boys whose ages range between six and fourteen is not specified. We may fix the number at a hundred or at seventy or at fifty just as we please. How many of them are small boys (the Littluns) and how many are big boys (the Biguns) is also left to our imagination.